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SOMALIA: Harakat al-Shabaab Mujahideen Reactivates its Encirclement Strategy

June 23, 2010

The following analysis is reprinted with permission from Garowe Online.

Somalia:  Harakat al-Shabaab Mujahideen Reactivates its Encirclement Strategy
©  Garowe Online
By Dr. Michael A. Weinstein
June 23, 2010

From the end of May through June, Harakat al-Shabaab Mujahideen (H.S.M.), the transnationalist revolutionary Islamist movement that seeks to establish an emirate in Somalia based on the implementation of Shari’a law, initiated the penultimate stage of its strategy of encircling its adversaries – Somalia’s internationally recognized Transitional Federal Government (T.F.G.) and the T.F.G.’s protectors, an African Union peacekeeping mission (AMISOM) – that H.S.M. has forced into a small enclave of the country’s capital Mogadishu.

The new stage of H.S.M.’s strategy is aimed at consolidating the armed opposition to the T.F.G., AMISOM, and other anti-Islamist forces by eliminating its major competitor within the Islamist opposition, the nationalist Hizbul Islam (H.I.). Having earlier displaced H.I. from Somalia’s southern Jubba regions, H.S.M. moved in June to remove H.I. from all the areas of southern and central Somalia in which the two groups have divided or shared control.

H.S.M.’s consolidation move is familiar to students of revolutionary coalitions: at a certain juncture, the dominant actor in the coalition judges that it is powerful enough to eliminate its collaborators-competitors so that it can gain an open field for establishing administrations in the areas that it dominates and coordinating efforts to mount operations against its major opponents. When a single faction takes control of a revolutionary coalition, it is a sign that its leaders perceive that their power has been enhanced to the point at which their faction stands to gain more by going it alone than by cooperating and sharing power. If it is successful, consolidation serves as a prelude to an offensive by the revolutionaries against their adversaries.

The Encirclement Strategy Ratchets Up

H.S.M.’s turn against H.I. was preceded by H.S.M.’s May 21 offensive in Mogadishu, in which it succeeded in taking control of districts formerly held by the T.F.G. that abut the core T.F.G. installations, notably the presidential palace, Villa Somalia. Having advanced to within half a kilometer of Villa Somalia, H.S.M. was met by a counter-attack spearheaded by AMISOM armor. The results of the counter-offensive were not reported in open sources; a closed source reports that it was only partially successful, with H.S.M. retaining its hold over the Karaan district and most of the Abdul-aziz, Shibis and Bondhere districts. AMISOM-T.F.G. forces were able to retake the coastal road in Abdul-aziz up to the Lido traffic circle, relieving some pressure on Villa Somalia.

Having shrunk the T.F.G.’s perimeter and having withstood the counter-offensive, H.S.M. was in the position to judge that it was not immediately vulnerable in Mogadishu and could move to the next stage of its encirclement strategy, eliminating H.I.

The most notable success of H.S.M.’s consolidation move came on June 12 when it ousted H.I. from Beledweyne, the capital of the strategic west-central Hiiraan region that controls vital transportation routes. Having once been the dominant actor in Hiiraan, H.I. had come to depend increasingly on H.S.M. as both factions faced military pressure from Ethiopian-backed militias led by former T.F.G. politicians. By mid-June, the balance of power in Hiiraan had shifted so much in favor of H.S.M. that H.I. withdrew peacefully from the eastern half of Beledweyne where key government and security facilities are located. On June 14, AllPuntland reported that a faction within H.I. was holding talks with H.S.M. in Beledweyne aimed at merging H.I. into H.S.M. On the same day Raxanreeb reported that the ousted H.I. governor of Hiiraan, Sh. Shuriye Farah Sabriye, had denied that his group had merged with H.S.M., claiming that his administration was still intact and that only one of his officials had joined H.S.M.

On June 15, Somaliweyn reported that a ceremony sealing the merger of H.S.M. and H.I. had been held in Beledweyne, quoting H.I. official Sh. Abuldkadir Haji Ahmed as saying, “Unity is certain to arouse strength.” Somaliweyn commented that there were no expectations that H.I. would attempt to reinforce and contest H.S.M.’s takeover.

On June 17, it became clear that H.I.’s position in Hiiraan had evaporated. Sh. Sabriye announced that his administration and forces had withdrawn from Beledweyne “under intense pressure” and were now based in Mogadishu. The head of H.I., Sh. Hassan Dahir Aweys, was reported to be meeting with his commanders and key supporters in H.I.’s stronghold in Elasha Biyaha outside Mogadishu on how to oppose H.S.M. Aweys announced publically that the defectors to H.S.M. in Hiiraan did not represent H.I. and that efforts by H.S.M. to encourage defections were impeding attempts to integrate the Islamist forces. Aweys said that H.I. was continuing to consult with H.S.M. on removing AMISOM from Somalia. On June 20, Aweys spoke again, stating that H.I. would only unite with H.S.M. through negotiations. He added that H.S.M. “wants more than it deserves.” A closed source reports that the transfer of control in Beledweyne was facilitated by paying an H.I. commander in the city $300,000 to change sides.

Emboldened by its success in Hiiraan, H.S.M. quickly moved to tighten its noose around H.I., which GaroweOnline observed had become an “empty shell.” On June 19, H.S.M. was reported to have taken control from H.I. of the police station in Mogadishu’s northern Yaqshid district. On June 22, further fighting over the police station was reported, in which at least ten fighters from both sides were killed and H.S.M. prevailed.

More importantly, on June 20, H.I. was reported to have deployed forces in areas surrounding Elasha Biyaha; H.I. was reported to have sent in reinforcements to protect its stronghold. On the same day, an H.I. commander in the Lower Shabelle region to the south of Mogadishu, Sh. Mohamed Ibrahim, announced that his forces had merged with H.S.M., explaining that H.S.M. was “active” and H.I. was “passive” in the struggle against the T.F.G. and AMISOM. Radio Gaalkacyo reported that H.I. fighters in Lower Shabelle’s Wanlaweyne district had defected to H.S.M.

On June 20, H.S.M. extended its pressure on H.I. to the west-central Bay region, with H.S.M. leader Sh. Muktar Osman Abu Muslim ordering the H.I. administration in the town of Burhakaba to merge with H.S.M., adding that if H.I. refused, it would be given time to vacate the town. H.I.’s district officer in Burhakaba, Sh. Hajir, said that his administration and forces would be “the last to leave” H.I.

On June 20, the T.F.G.’s deputy prime minister, Prof Abdirahman Haji Aden Ibbi, told the T.F.G.’s Radio Mogadishu that the T.F.G. had been holding talks for “several weeks” with H.I. on the latter’s incorporation into the T.F.G. GaroweOnline reported that it was not clear which factions of the T.F.G. and H.I. were involved in the talks, and that some members of the H.I. delegation had walked out of them “for unclear reasons.” The report indicated that one of the reasons why H.S.M. had moved so quickly against H.I. was to prevent the handover of territories controlled by H.I. to the T.F.G. if the talks led to H.I.’s incorporation into the T.F.G. On June 22, Xinhua reported that Ibbi’s announcement of T.F.G.-H.I. negotiations had been confirmed by Abdelrasak Qaylow, the spokesman for the T.F.G.’s ministry of information. A closed source reported on June 22 that the negotiators for H.I. come from the “lower ranks” of the group and from clan supporters who despise H.S.M. The source expects that if H.I. disintegrates, most of its fighters will surrender to H.S.M.

Underscoring the rapid deterioration of H.I.’s position, Raxanreeb reported on June 22 that Sh. Aweys was seeking political asylum in the Arab world after the consultations with his top leaders in Elasha Biyaha led to the judgment that he should leave Somalia for security reasons.


It is too early to tell whether H.S.M.’s consolidation move will meet with success, although it is clear that its power advantage over H.I. gives it momentum. H.S.M. is also, by all appearances, pursuing a calculated and coherent strategy of avoiding armed confrontation with H.I. in favor of persuading and inducing local and regional H.I. forces to merge with it. Striving for consolidation, H.S.M. does not want to fight an internecine war that would damage its Islamist credentials, at least temporarily weaken its position in relation to the coalition of forces opposing it, and deprive it of the H.I. forces that it wants to win over. If possible, H.S.M. will stick to intimidating H.I., unless H.I. agrees to incorporation in the T.F.G.

If H.S.M. fails to implement the present phase of its encirclement strategy successfully, it will suffer a significant setback and lose a measure of credibility. H.S.M.’s strategy is a calculated risk.

If, as is more likely, the consolidation move is successful, H.S.M. will emerge stronger and will focus its attention on its major adversaries, attempting to break the stalemate between the armed Islamists and their opponents that has existed throughout 2010. H.S.M. is likely to move first against the Ahlu Sunna wal-Jama’a movement (A.S.W.J.) that controls much of the central Galgadud region and has deployed forces in Mogadishu. If H.S.M. manages to prevail against A.S.W.J. in Galgadud, it will have completed the encirclement of the T.F.G. and AMISOM in Mogadishu and eliminated opposition elsewhere in Somalia’s southern and central regions. Whether completion of the encirclement would force the hands of external powers such as Ethiopia, the United States and Western European states and constrain them to mount robust military action against H.S.M. remains to be seen. That would be the ultimate risk for H.S.M. in implementing the final phase of its strategy – strangling AMISOM in Mogadishu and thereby convincing the mission’s contributors Uganda and Burundi to pull out, leaving the T.F.G. without protection.

H.S.M. has erred before through excess, most notably by declaring jihad against Ethiopia when it was part of the Islamic Courts movement, thereby bringing about the Ethiopian occupation of southern and central Somalia in December, 2006. H.S.M.’s current behavior indicates that it has not succumbed to zealotry and has learned its lesson. H.S.M. is aware that its adversaries are weak and divided (T.F.G.), under-resourced and working under a restricted mandate (AMISOM), and reluctant to take decisive action (Western powers and Ethiopia, although the latter is the most likely to move if it receives Western backing). Absorbing the shell of H.I. would not appreciably enhance the T.F.G.’s power and would cause further divisions in it, complicating an unconsummated power-sharing deal with A.S.W.J. and adding more conflicts over positions and representation.

For the moment, the success of H.S.M.’s encirclement strategy depends on removing H.I. from Elasha Biyaha and the Afgoe district directly south of Mogadishu. Should H.I. collapse, the nationalist-Islamist bridge between transnational revolutionary Islamism and the international globalist coalition propping up the T.F.G. and funding AMISOM will have been destroyed, and the conflicts in southern and central Somalia will have been starkly polarized.

Report Drafted By:  Dr. Michael A. Weinstein, Professor of Political Science, Purdue University in Chicago.  weinstem@purdue.edu

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